I write about the things that matter to me. All opinions are my own.

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Friday, November 28, 2014

You Have To Look Beyond The Data

The world is divided into two camps:
  • Those who trumpet the rise of Big Data.
  • Those who want to shoot it dead.
Legitimate opinions of course may vary. But in my own personal observation, the more emphatically you pound your fist on the table, the more your opinion is based in fear.
Here is a primer on the two extremes:
  • The "trust my gut" team: People who suck at math, who want to preserve some arbitrary status quo or who are plain and simple close-minded will always scoff at the merits of Big Data. At the term itself.
  • The "hard data" camp: People who are less naturally talented at reading the tea leaves, who lack the courage of their insight, who have a lot of money and/or power riding on their decisions and need a sound "audit trail" as to why, will always want to point to "hard data" to support.
Consider the Deconstructed Nicoise salad at Whole Foods. (Photo by me)
What led me to take a photo?
Our approach to the answer - not the answer itself, because there are of course different versions - will help shed some light on this debate.
Let's time-travel back to 1976. I'm attending Camp Morasha. 
We are performing on this misty Saturday night. Our show is called "The Man Who Never Returned," in which "Charlie" is stuck in the subways of Boston. (You're not the only one wondering about the needlessly terrifying scenario.)
Each kid gets to ask one hypothetical question about Charlie's dilemma. It is dutifully recorded in the newsletter. Here is me:
"How did he get his breakfast and his supper?"
Four decades later I'm at a salad bar taking pictures of the salad. Interpretations:
  • "Hard data": "Let's begin with a sufficiently narrow research question, look for quantitative evidence where possible and qualitative where necessary, and assess versus a benchmark measure to determine whether the subject is objectively preoccupied with food."
  • "Gut feel": "Oh she's obsessed, all right."
Which of them would be right? How do you decide on methodology, when there is limited time to make a defensible decision?
How about "both and neither?"
  • Look for any numbers available to you, and investigate those as you can. For example, I've been just slightly above normal weight all my life. Consistency says there's a pattern of eating habits that can be examined with minimal concern that any specific life circumstance interfered.
  • Find out anything you can about the uniqueness of the subject's context and background. In my case, being female, Jewish, from a Holocaust family and middle-aged are all well-researched variables with fairly predictable results. 
At the end of the day, you have to do one more thing as well: find and look past your natural bias.
  • Are you a numbers type? Invite a feminist historian to comment.
  • Do you trust only your gut? Do some quantitative research, and write down your responses to critiques that blatantly contradict your point of view. (Don't talk about it with others - you will only feel more defensive when they disagree.)
As in most things, the answer is not to go extreme, but to find a livable place in the middle. It's an attitude that comes with maturity, with getting over yourself. With realizing that you're not the only one to have a point of view in this world. 
Photo by Nina Helmer via Flickr.